Time is running out...

We are facing planetary catastrophe:

Excerpts From "It’s a Matter of Survival" (pp 39-41 & 235-238)
Anita Gordon & David Suzuki, Allen & Unwin Australia Pty Ltd, 1990.

There is a strange phenomenon that biologists refer to as "the boiled frog syndrome". Put a frog in a pot of water and increase the temperature of the water gradually from 20oC to 30oC to 40oC…to 90oC and the frog just sits there. But suddenly, at 100oC, something happens: the water boils and the frog dies.

Scientists studying environmental problems, particularly the greenhouse effect, see "the boiled frog syndrome" as a metaphor for the human situation: we have figuratively and in some ways literally, been heating up the world around us without recognising the danger.

Psychologist Robert Ornstein, co-author of "New World, New Mind", points out that those people who have been sounding warnings receive the same response from us as would someone attempting to alert the frog in danger of a rise in its water temperature from say 70oC to 90oC. If the frog could talk, he would say, "There’s no difference, really. It’s slightly warmer in here, but I’m just as well off". If you then say to the frog, "If the heat keeps increasing at that rate, you will die", the frog will reply, "We have been increasing it for a long time, and I’m not dead. So what are you worried about?"

"Our situation is like the frog’s" says Ornstein. Today, despite the fact that researchers using the most sophisticated atmospheric monitoring equipment in the world are telling us that our future is at risk, we – as individuals and as governments – ignore or minimise the warnings.

The frog has a fatal flaw, explains Ornstein. Having no evolutionary experience with boiling water, he is unable to perceive it as dangerous. Throughout their biological evolution, frogs have lived in a medium that does not vary greatly in temperature, so they haven’t needed to develop sophisticated thermal detectors in their skin. The frog in the pot is unaware of the threat and simply sits complacently until he boils.

Like the simmering frog, we face a future without precedent, and our senses are not attuned to warnings of imminent danger. The threats we face as the crisis builds – global warming, acid rain, the ozone hole and increasing ultraviolet radiation, chemical toxins such as pesticides, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in our food and water – are undetectable by the sensory system we have evolved. We do not feel the acidity of the rain, see the ultraviolet radiation projected through the ozone hole, taste the toxins in our food and water, or feel the heat of global warming except, as the frog does, as gradual and therefore endurable. Nothing in our evolutionary experience has prepared us for the limits of a finite world, one in which a five degree climate change over a matter of decades will mean the end of life as we have known it on the planet.

How did we come to this? How did we plan our own obsolescence? The answer lies in millennia of human history, a suprisingly brief chapter in the chronicle of the planet. You can see just how brief if you use a standard calender to mark the passage of time on Earth. The origin of the Earth, some 4.6 billion years ago, is placed at midnight January 1, and the present at midnight December 31.

Each calender day represents approximately 12 million years of actual history. Dinosaurs arrived on about December 10 and disappeared on Christmas day. Homo sapiens made an appearance at 11:45pm on December 31. The recorded history of human achievement, on which we base so much of our view of human entitlement, takes up only the last minute of that year.

The dinosaurs had a fortnight of supremacy on this planet before they were eradicated by some environmental catastrophe. We have had 15 minutes of fame. And in that short period we have transformed the world. In fact, Homo Sapiens has managed to extinguish large parts of the living world in a matter of centuries.

We think we no longer need nature. We create economic and religious worldviews that put man’s enterprise at the centre of the universe and layer it with sacred truths that we know now are neither sacred nor true. But the point may be that nature does not need us. There are those who mourn our loss of nature, a loss of natural beauty we see around us, but the real loss may go unmourned – the real loss may be us. Nature will survive; humanity runs the risk of being written out of the picture. There are scientists who see all life on Earth as a living whole. British biologist James Lovelock calls the concept "Gaia", after the Greek goddess of the Earth. That theory states that the sum total of all living organisms behaves as a single system, that the entire Earth is a living, breathing, self-regulating entity.

Our sojourn – or myth of it – as managers of the Earth, following a biblical imperative to have dominion over and act as the stewards of the planet, is at an end. We do not stand supreme. We stand outside. Darwin was wrong: if is not the fittest who will survive, it is the fit-ins.

This is a test for humanity. Will we degenerate into territorial creatures struggling for power, land, and survival, or will we emerge with a new collective image of ourselves as a species integrated into the natural world? In times of crisis, people have pulled together and forgotten their mistrust and petty rivalries. They’ve sacrificed and worked to change their lives. There has never been a bigger crisis than the one we now face. And we are the last generation that can pull us out of it. We must act because this is the only home we have. It is a matter of survival.